history lesson

Mister Jelly Roll

Must be the New Orleans trip fever, because I’m finally writing up a great book that I found at a used book store ages ago.

The book is called Mister Jelly Roll, and it’s about the famed early boogie woogie pianist Jelly Roll Morton. Morton played all over the United States in the first forty years of the 19002, but was born and raised in New Orleans.

Mister Jelly Roll cover

Alan Lomax, the author of the book, might be familiar to you for his ethnomusicology work and folklore efforts. Mister Jelly Roll is one of the many oral histories Lomax collected from famed musicians of the early 20th century.

Being an oral history, it’s all you can do to take Morton as his word. He’s a larger than life character, with a pretty strong self-pronounced claim for being the “father of jazz.”

He certainly did originate early arrangements of jazz music, and helped to popularize them all over the U.S. through a grueling tour schedule. Whether or not he is the “father of jazz,” Morton’s life story takes you through marriages, success, failure, small clubs, big band halls, racism, and impressive musical creativity.

The book is illustrated by David Stone Martin, whose strong graphic lines can be found on many jazz album covers of the day. The drawings, as well as the musical notes included in the appendix, make the book a fully engaging historical document. Recommended for music history buffs.

Want more?

Check out the original Time Magazine review of the book here (1950)

Jelly Roll videos: Hesitation Blues, Crazy Chords, and the Steamboat Stomp.

More illustration by David Stone Martin:

Mister Jelly Roll, Guide to New Orleans around 1900

Mister Jelly Roll, Guide to New Orleans around 1900

Mister Jelly Roll, illustrations by David Stone Martin

Seven Gothic Tales

I’ve been on a bit of an Isak Dinesen kick lately. It started when I rented Out of Africa, then picked up the book. She’s become one of my historical crushes (in good company with Frida Kahlo and Katharine Hepburn), and I’m itching to read her biography, as she had the most dramatic life: photographed by Richard Avedon (see picture), written about by Truman Capote, and played by Meryl Streep.

Born in 1885 to a wealthy family in Denmark, she married and became the Countess Karen von Blixen (Isak Dinesen is her pen name – in Hebrew, “Isak” means “the one who laughs”). She and her husband moved to Kenya, where they ran a coffee plantation. It was not the happiest of marriages, and they divorced in the mid 1920s when she got infected with syphilis from her husband. She then returned to Denmark and lived on her family estate, writing and maintaining her image as an aristocratic, enigmatic lady of letters.

Seven Gothic Tales was written in 1934 (in the U.S.). She wrote her books in both Danish and English, and I would be hard pressed to peg her as a non-native speaker. The Tales hearken back to a time when the act of story-telling was a noble and respected art. Each character in the Tales brings has at least one story to tell, leaving the reader feel all the richer as you jump for Denmark to Italy to Africa.

I wouldn’t say that the Tales are Gothic in temperament, but rather in their setting, both spooky and off-putting. Beautiful women perform furious ballets in the dead of night. Monkeys hold the souls of elderly abbesses by their prickly little claws. My nighttime dreams became more vibrant while I was reading this book.┬áThe Tales highlights the belief that stories and myths are magic, that they both take us away from the everyday and are ingrained within it. I highly recommend them for reading by the fire as these winter nights drag on.

I’ll leave you with one of my favorite quotes, from a Tale called “The Monkey”:

“Women, he thought, when they are old enough to have done with the business of being women, and can let loose their strength, must be the most powerful creatures in the whole world.”